Hell’s Island

Hell’s Island

Leo and Ray don’t show up in this book until page 88, when Stephen Moore recounts the attempt of two pilots trying to follow and then lead them towards the USS Yorktown. This is the point when Leo and Ray run out of gas and bail off for their water landingHe gives them a little more press than Walter Lord however it might be a paragraph at most.  It seems to be more of an interesting tangent than a part of the story.  Following the citation to the index, Mr. Moore based his version of Leo’s account on a article written by his gunner Ray Machalinski.  Even though it is exciting to know of another primary source out there, I think something is going on with Leo’s VT-5 squadron here.  Moore chooses to concentrate on the Scouting and Bombing divisions of the Naval Aircraft Carrier forces while taking pot shots at the Torpedo squadrons.  Apparently, the Torpedo squadron rarely ever hit a ship with their torpedoes.  Added to the fact that the TBD Devastator was a slower plane, I am just getting into the Battle of the Coral Sea and have noticed that the Torpedo squadrons are an afterthought in Mr.  Moore’s scholarship.

With that said, the stories are great. He describes in great detail how the aircraft missions are designed and then carried out.  First, the Scouting squadron is sent out and each plane is assigned to a sector mapped out in space.  Looking for ships, the fighter pilots fly out on one transect turn right at a certain angle and fly back.  Accompanying the scouting division, the bombing planes are carrying 1000 lb ordinance, ready to dive bomb if necessary.  When a ship is spotted, the planes break off into space and proceed to rush the ships from above the clouds.  Diving at an alarming rate, the bomb is dropped during the descent towards the target and then the pilot quickly pulls up on the plane while being shot at by Japanese fighter planes.  As the plane is wrestled from it’s plunge, the rear gunner could see the aftermath of a ship being crippled from his planes dive bomb.

So far, this book is really about greatness and all the opportunities these men and women had to achieve such a feat.  A lot of these pilots were just regular dudes until they ended up in a cockpit.  Then, multiple times in one day, these pilots had opportunities to do legendary things just by surviving another mission.  Each day they had a chance to be that modern day war hero, or just survive or even possibly die.  Thinking about my existence, I obviously don’t have as many opportunities to be great as those pilots did. Greatness seems to come easy to these men because it comes to them in extraordinary circumstances.  Is it the person or the circumstance that creates greatness?  How do we even determine greatness?  In their situations with so many opportunities to reap glory, the standards were so much higher when separating yourself from your fellow pilot.  The ones who came out great did so under much scrutiny and competition.  The stories in this book make you ponder the incredible situation these pilots faced and ultimately survived.  While sitting on the train to work, I take turns between reading the book and staring out the window.  I can’t help but wonder and maybe even hope a little bit that if I was put in a cockpit during the South Pacific campaign, would I even survive, let alone be great?  It’s a silly thought experiment, one that leads to a bunch of nothing but its hard to shake sometimes.  Of course you want to be great, you want to be that pilot that shoots down all the planes and lands all their bombs.  But it doesn’t always work that way.  Some people succeed and some people don’t.  I guess that’s just how it goes.


Note:  The picture for this post shows the art of the dive bomb taken from the Pacific Aviation Museum website.

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